You can’t fault the musical ensemble eighth blackbird, curators of the Park Avenue Armory’s recent Tune-In Festival, for lacking ambition. The program I caught, PowerLESS (one of four) had a listed runtime of three hours, but the evening lasted closer to four hours. Granted, it featured works that were supposed to be about form and not content (the prior night, PowerFUL, was about loaded work), but there was still an awful lot of form to process. The festival is part of an eclectic season at the Armory; highlights to come include the RSC in residence in a replica of the Globe Theater, and Merce Cunningham Dance Company’s final performances ever.
Leading off the program was George Haas’ in vain (2000), performed by the Argento Chamber Ensemble conducted by Michel Galante. For me, the highlights were less about the music, perhaps best summarized by the title—shimmering pools and wavelets of sound that ebbed and flowed seamlessly—and more about the blackouts that occurred periodically, during which the musicians continued to play. We in the capacity audience of 725 were left to close our eyes or raise our hungry gazes upward, where sparsely-spaced LEDs twinkled like stars in the cavernous Wade Thompson Drill Hall; strobe lights in the pitch dark added a tear-inducing lightning effect. Steven Schick performed Kurt Schwitters’ UrSonate (1922-32), a devilish tour de force composed of gibberish phrases repeated and sampled. Some took on the cadences of imagined sentences, and others became amusingly absurd in Schick’s ardent performance.
The third act began with the ensembles eighth blackbird and red fish blue fish, plus guests, playing Bach’s Chaconne Partita in D-Minor in an arrangement emphasizing the six xylophones centerstage. Without a pause, the piece segued into Steve Reich’s masterpiece, Music for 18 Musicians, for which the orchestra set-up was tailored. Performing this work’s hypnotic, phasing, shifting structure must demand great focus, and the orchestra chased the unrelenting rhythms crisply to the finale, more than an hour after beginning. Despite the cumulative power of the program, and the very comfortable ergonomic chairs on temp risers, the evening easily could have been split into two programs. If audience endurance was the point in this evening of primarily formal compositions, then we got it.